Getting Your Unconscious On Board With Your Goals

Listen to or read this post:


Setting goals and then following through on them can be challenging for anyone. Productivity experts recommend rewards along the way to help stay focused. They suggest manipulating environments and habits — life hacks — to resist the natural tendency towards distraction.

Perhaps the difficulty with following through on goals occurs because only 5 percent of the brain is involved in conscious processes, while the other 95 percent is dedicated to unconscious processing. We may consciously want to reach our goals, but unconscious drives, defenses, and desires have a way of upending those proverbial best laid plans.

Having unresolved trauma increases the likelihood of failing to meet goals, including the whys for recovery explored in the last post. When triggered by reminders of trauma, unconscious emotions and body sensations can cause us to seek safety or self-soothing in place of meeting goals. While the largely unconscious brain ensures its survival, goals get postponed, ignored, or forgotten.

Much of the work of trauma-focused recovery is on re-educating the unconscious so that it filters stimuli according to conscious goals rather than defenses. This is why living within the window of tolerance is helpful, along with identifying whys for recovery. Both orient away from fear-based living, and the depression and anxiety that often occur. We must direct the unconscious towards stimuli we want it to react to, rather than what it has historically learned to pay attention to for the purpose of staying safe. Although we can’t gain absolute control over our unconscious processes, we certainly can tame them.

Unconscious processes include the multiple emotional systems located in the subcortical region of the brain. We have emotional systems for anxiety, anger, sexuality, care, panic, grief, play, and other primary emotions. These unconscious emotional systems are conditioned through repeated exposure to the same stimuli, as well as through exposure to overwhelming stimuli, such as sexual trauma. Each emotional system has its own way of processing and reacting to stimulation. And they all work simultaneously, and are sometimes conflicting. Thus even when we really want something, it’s easy to become derailed by our own emotions and the different needs they serve. Fortunately, we can challenge our emotional systems’ habitual ways of reacting to stimuli by mindfully changing where we direct our attention. Mindfulness is central to this effort. If you want to change your brain, you have to be mindful of what you are doing. (According to some studies you have to spend at least 30 seconds in the new experience just to form a corresponding new neural network.)

It may help to contrast ordinary consciousness with mindfulness. Ordinary consciousness occurs when engaged in habits and routines. It is oriented to time and space, and attention is directed towards accomplishing goals. In contrast, mindfulness is internally focused and concerned with present moment experience. It is less oriented towards time and space, and is more curious about circumstances than achieving goals. When working towards goals, we often want our awareness to be ordinary consciousness. However, when attempting to change the focus of unconscious attention, mindfulness is needed.

It helps to imagine you actually have two sets of goals: conscious and unconscious goals. Unconscious goals arise from the competing emotional systems and their reactions to stimuli. Conscious goals result from identifying objectives and thinking through the conditions needed to meet desired outcomes. We increase the likelihood for success when these two types of goals are aligned.

Problems can emerge when conscious goals don’t lead to feeling good. According to the unconscious, if something feels good then it is good. Of course, that’s not necessarily true. Eating a tub of ice cream may feel good, but it’s not good for you. However, when trying to get the unconscious on board with your goals, it’s important to think of how you want to feel once you’ve reached your objectives. Furthermore, taking time to regularly and mindfully savor how it will feel to reach a goal increases the likelihood of success (and fosters neuronal growth).

Another problem arises due to communication, since the conscious and unconscious don’t speak the same language.  Conscious processing relies on concepts and ideas. Unconscious processing involves emotions, imagery, body sensations and picture words, such as nouns. When we communicate goals to the unconscious in its language, evidence suggests we increase the likelihood of reaching our goals. In this regard, images really help.

I’m a fan of vision boards — collages of magazine images used to support goals and intentions  — something I would never have imagined about myself. My first effort felt childish and a bit ‘woo-woo’. Nevertheless, it worked, and I’m now an unabashed fan.

Images can amplify goals and intentions by resonating with positive emotions. When using images to motivate goals, you don’t have to go all out and create a collage of every goal and intention. One or two images for each why identified in the last post, or an important goal, is often enough.

For instance, say one of your whys for recovery is more intimacy in a romantic relationship. Finding an image of a couple expressing the tenderness and closeness you desire can encourage the emotions you want in your relationship. Or perhaps you want to stop ruminating about the person who hurt you, and images of forests remind you of the peace you seek. Posting images where you will see them (although only if this feels safe to you) becomes an opportunity to shift your attention and emotions. Along with all the other stimuli you receive from your environment, you can start letting in feelings that relate to your whys. Doing so doesn’t replace the difficult work of change, but it does help align your conscious and unconscious towards the same goal. Granted, the unconscious may negatively react to images in its old, protective fear-based ways, but you’ll also have an opportunity to witness how you defend against what you believe you want, and you can work to relax those defenses, or perhaps tweak your goal (and images) in ways that improve alignment.

For this project, Ambivalent Goddesses, I made a vision board and taped it to my office window to remind me of how I wanted to feel both as I created material and at the very end of the project. My goal was to replace the anxiety I felt around discussing such an intimate topic with feeling strength and compassion. And it worked!

Select images that resonate with your why(s) and how you want to feel when you reach your goal(s) for recovery. Use either pictures from magazines or images from the web. If you are an artist, draw or paint them.  Spend a minute mindfully observing your internal responses to your images, including any feelings, body sensations, memories, or fantasies that emerge. Does anything unexpected come up for you? Write down your reactions. Keep your images in a journal if you are likely to review them regularly, or put someplace where you will see them often. Get in the habit of using your selected images to increase the positive emotions you associate with recovery. 


© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).